Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Paris. Capital of France in whose mean—and mainly unknown—neighborhoods most of the novel is set. In setting most of his action in these neighborhoods, Hugo emphasizes how a great majority of honest and hard-working people (“les misérables”) live in overcrowded and dilapidated conditions. His criticism does not originate in class warfare but rather out of a desire to help improve their unbearable situation. Many streets mentioned in the novel were destroyed or absorbed in other wider arteries during various urban renewals, especially under the Second Empire in the 1850’s and 1860’s—and later. Some simply have changed names to new appellations: For example, rue Plumet has become rue Oudinot.
Rue Plumet house
Rue Plumet house. Jean Valjean and Cosette’s new rented home in a good neighborhood. The furnished townhouse, with its solidly enclosed garden, is not only vast and almost elegant, it has a secret passageway offering escape if necessary. Since they want to be unnoticed, Valjean and Cosette never use the entrance on rue Plumet, but use a side door to a back street. After discovering her address, however, Marius visits the sixteen-year-old girl, and both confess their love for each other as they kiss. The untended garden, which symbolizes the naïveté and free-spiritedness of Cosette, is now transformed into a wondrous place, alive with sheltering trees and perfuming flowers, that welcomes...
(The entire section is 968 words.)
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Romanticism was an intellectual and artistic movement that swept Europe and the United States in the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. This movement was preceded by the Enlightenment, which emphasized reason as the basis of social life. The Enlightenment also promoted universal, formal standards, dating back to Greek and Roman classicism, for greatness in art. The artists, philosophers, writers, and composers of the Romantic movement rejected these standards and instead valued the individual imagination and experience as the basis of art and source of truth. Nature, the state of childhood, and emotion, rather than logic or scientific investigation, were considered the primary sources of eternal truth.
Victor Hugo was one of the leading writers of the Romantic movement in France, and Les Miserables was one of its major works. The novel is Romantic in style and theme. It is written in a sweeping, emotional manner, taking the experience of the individual as the starting-point for discovering truths about French society.
France in the nineteenth century was in a constant state of political and social unrest. In 1789, the newly formed National Assembly created a document called the "Declaration of the Rights of Man," establishing the right to liberty, equality, property, and security, and adding that every citizen had a duty to defend these rights. After King Louis XVI was executed...
(The entire section is 866 words.)
Fantine: Questions and Answers
1. How is a convict discriminated against after being released from prison?
2. What was Jean’s crime? Why was he in prison so long?
3. What is Jean’s moral dilemma the night he stays with the bishop?
4. What does the bishop do when Jean steals his silver?
5. Who is Petit Gervais?
6. Why does Fantine leave her child with the Thénardiers?
7. How does the author characterize the Thénardiers?
8. How does Jean make a fortune in M——sur M——?
9. How does Jean’s rescue of Fauchelevant put him at risk?
10. Why does Jean risk revealing his true identity when Father Champmathieu is arrested?
1. Convicts are treated as second class citizens, and they are often paid lower wages. All doors are closed to them, and it is impossible for them to avoid being identified as convicts because they are forced to register with legal authorities wherever they go.
2. Jean was originally sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. His sentence was eventually lengthened to a total of 19 years because of five failed escape attempts.
3. Jean wrestles with his conscience as he tries to decide whether or not to steal the bishop’s silver. Although the bishop’s treatment of him makes him feel guilty, he eventually succumbs to temptation.
4. The bishop forgives...
(The entire section is 388 words.)
Cosette: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Jean return to prison? What is he convicted of and what is his sentence?
2. How does Jean escape?
3. How does Jean fulfill a promise to Fantine?
4. What does Cosette give Jean that he has never had before?
5. In the first section of the book, the author compares Fantine to a lark. What bird images does he use in the second section?
6. Why do people refer to Jean as the “beggar who gives alms”?
7. Why does Jean abruptly leave Gorbeau House?
8. What is Jean’s greatest fear in being recaptured?
9. How does Jean escape from Javert and his men?
10. How do Jean and Fauchelevant convince the prioress and the reverend mother to allow Jean and Cosette to stay at the convent?
1. Jean reveals his identity when he testifies at Father Champ¬mathieu’s trial. He is found guilty of assault and robbery and condemned to death. His sentence is later commuted to hard labor for life.
2. After climbing a rigging to save a sailor who has lost his balance, Jean plunges into the sea and is presumed to have drowned.
3. He rescues Cosette from the Thénardiers.
4. For the first time in his life, Jean has someone to love.
5. Jean and Cosette are referred to as the owl and the wren when they find refuge in Gorbeau House. Jean is wise, and Cosette is small and...
(The entire section is 351 words.)
Marius: Questions and Answers
1. What kind of man is M. Gillenormand?
2. What were the highlights of Pontmercy’s military career?
3. Why does Marius live with his grandfather instead of his father?
4. What instruction does Pontmercy leave Marius when he dies?
5. How does the information Monsieur Mabeuf gives Marius change his mind about his father and about politics?
6. When Marius falls in love, how does he inadvertently change her life?
7. What lies do the Jondrettes tell to gain sympathy and assistance from M. Leblanc and his daughter?
8. What is Jondrette’s real identity, and why does he hate M. Leblanc?
9. Why does Marius not act immediately to save Leblanc and his daughter?
10. How does the appearance of Javert abort Jondrette’s plan?
1. M. Gillenormand is a bourgeois man who is somewhat of a snob. He wants to control everyone in his life, and when they do not do what he wants, he punishes them. He rejects the husband of his daughter for political reasons, prevents Marius from living with his father, beats his servants, and treats his 50-year-old daughter like a child. He banishes Marius from his house when Marius disagrees with him.
2. He was a decorated soldier of the revolution who fought in almost every campaign including Waterloo.
3. M. Gillenormand has threatened to disinherit Marius...
(The entire section is 530 words.)
Saint Denis: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Jean rent the house in the Rue Plumet?
2. Why does Jean decide to leave the safety of the convent?
3. What events prompt Jean to decide to leave the country?
4. How does Eponine manipulate both Cosette and Marius?
5. To what degree are the men in the barricade outnumbered? What is the inevitable outcome of the battle?
6. Who is the spy in the barricade, and what is his fate?
7. How does Jean read the message Cosette sends to Marius even before Marius receives it?
8. How does Jean intercept the message Marius sends Cosette from the barricade and what does he do when he reads it?
9. What does Marius threaten to do if the soldiers do not retreat?
10. What does Marius write in his letter to Cosette?
1. He rents the house because it is located on a deserted street and because it has a secret passage to an outside entrance a third of a mile away from the house. The passage will provide a safe exit if escape is necessary.
2. Jean decides to leave the convent after Fauchelevent dies so that Cosette may have a more normal life.
3. Two events convince Jean that he is in danger of being discovered. The first is that he finds an address scratched on his garden wall. He does not know that Marius wrote it there for Cosette. The other is that a paper with the word “REMOVE”...
(The entire section is 487 words.)
Jean Valjean: Questions and Answers
1. How does the relationship between Gavroche and Marius compare to the relationship between Pontmercy and Thénardier?
2. How does M. Gillerormand react to Cosette and Marius’ marriage?
3. What is the final outcome of the battle at the barricade?
4. What obstacles does Jean encounter as he carries Marius through the sewers of Paris?
5. Why does Javert commit suicide?
6. Why does Jean pretend to have an injury when Cosette gets married?
7. Why is Jean despondent after Cosette’s wedding?
8. What evidence does Thénardier produce to prove that he is telling Marius the truth?
9. How does Marius resolve his obligation to Thénardier?
10. What final requests does Jean make before he dies?
1. Both Marius and Thénardier risk their lives to rescue a fallen comrade. When Gavroche is shot, Marius carries his body back to the barricade just as Thénardier carried Pontmercy to safety when he was injured in battle. The difference is that Pontmercy was still alive when Thénardier rescued him.
2. He invites Marius and Cosette to live with him. He gives up his own room for them and fills it with fine furniture.
3. The soldiers break through the barricade and kill most of the rebels. Jean sees Marius fall and carries him to safety.
4. The dampness of the sewer makes it...
(The entire section is 434 words.)
In some ways the novel is structured traditionally. It has a rising action, that is, the part of the narrative that sets up the problems that are to be resolved. This consists of Valjean's life up to the point when he saves his enemy Marius by carrying him through the sewers of Paris to safety. The climax, or turning point, when the conflict reaches its peak, is the suicide of the police detective Javert. Caught between his rigid belief in the absolute power of law and his conclusion that he has a moral obligation to break the law and free his savior, Valjean, Javert solves his dilemma by killing himself. The denouement, or winding-down of the story, which describes the outcome of the primary plot problem as well as resolving secondary plots, includes Marius's recovery, the marriage of Cosette and Marius, the revelation of Valjean's true story, and the young couple's visit to Valjean's deathbed.
But the narrative's many departures from the main plot are important to the novel as well. The novel includes separate sections on the sewers of Paris, the criminal underworld, the convent, Parisian street slang, the Battle of Waterloo, revolutionary societies, and the barricades. Hugo is telling more than the story of one man; he is telling the story of Paris. His digressions, although they do not forward plot development, give the reader information about the novel's themes, such as human rights, justice and injustice, class conflict, and...
(The entire section is 1200 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Victor Hugo's Les Miserables remains among the best loved novels of all time. Playing out the essential human drama and dealing with moral conflicts regarding truth, love, loyalty, and honor, it also paints a vivid picture of France during one of the most compelling periods in that nation's history.
1. Investigate current prison conditions in the United States and compare today's prison experience to Valjean's as described in the novel.
2. Consider the ethical issues surrounding imprisonment that the novel raises in book two, chapter seven ("The Inwardness of Despair"). Does Hugo see prison as an effective means of punishing criminals? Does prison reform criminals or does it make them more violent? How does Hugo suggest prisoners should be treated? Use examples from the book to support your answers.
3. Investigate the economic, legal, and social definition of poverty in the United States today and compare it to the conditions of poverty in Paris as described in the novel.
4. Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, first published in 1866, tells the story of Raskolnikov, a man who commits a brutal murder and then cannot escape either his own conscience or the detective who pursues him. Read the novel and explain how Raskolnikov's situation is similar to Valjean's and how it differs.
(The entire section is 206 words.)
When Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables first came out in 1862, people in Paris and elsewhere lined up to buy it. Although critics were less receptive, the novel was an instant popular success. The French word "miserables" means both poor wretches and scoundrels or villains. The novel offers a huge cast that includes both kinds of "miserables." A product of France's most prominent Romantic writer, Les Miserables ranges far and wide. It paints a vivid picture of Paris's seamier side, discusses the causes and results of revolution, and includes discourses on topics ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to Parisian street slang. But the two central themes that dominate the novel are the moral redemption of its main character, Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, and the moral redemption of a nation through revolution. Victor Hugo said: "I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred. That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Miserables." The novel is a critical statement against human suffering, poverty, and ignorance. Its purpose is as much political as it is artistic.
During the early nineteenth century, when Hugo wrote Les Miserables, France was in a state of political and social unrest in the wake of the French Revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy. In 1789, the newly formed National Assembly had created a document called the "Declaration of the Rights...
(The entire section is 918 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1830s: Under public pressure, French legislators reformed prisons to some extent. They abolished some of the more barbaric forms of punishment that were practiced under the Ancien Régime, such as torture and hanging, and offered education for petty offenders.
1850s: As a result of unemployment caused by industrialization, crime rates rose in France and the prison population increased. Inmates were not allowed to speak to each other. Riots and suicides took place in prisons.
Today: Due in part to poor economic conditions in France, prison populations are on the rise again, with an increase in the number of convicts serving time for drug-related crimes. With a prison population that is steadily increasing, overcrowding is a problem, and many inmates find themselves sharing a cell with as many as five other prisoners.
1830s: France was beginning to become an industrialized nation, a process that would transform its economy, workplace, working class, and political landscape.
1850s: Increasing industrialization brought wealth to France as well as increased unemployment. Lack of work drove thousands of poor women to prostitution and many of the urban poor to crime.
Today: After rapid consolidation of industries in the 1970s, many French manufacturing jobs were eliminated, resulting in high levels of unemployment. Currently, many young people have...
(The entire section is 396 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Investigate current prison conditions in the United States and compare today's prison experience to Valjean's as described in the novel.
Consider the ethical issues surrounding imprisonment that the novel raises in book two, chapter seven ("The inwardness of despair"). Does Hugo see prison as an effective means of punishing criminals? Does prison reform criminals, according to Hugo, or does it make them more violent? How does the author suggest prisoners should be treated? Use examples from the book to support your answers.
Investigate the economic, legal, and social definition of poverty in the United States today and compare it to the conditions of poverty in Paris as described in the novel.
(The entire section is 111 words.)
As a child, Hugo often wrote poetry, claiming that he wanted to be the next Chateaubriand, a French writer considered to be a precursor of the Romantics. Eventually, Hugo became one of the leading Romantic writers of France. His other major works include the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831, and the poetry collection Contemplations, released in 1856, which he wrote at about the same time as Les Miserables. Some critics consider the latter, written after the drowning death of Hugo's daughter, his best poetry.
(The entire section is 86 words.)
For other writings about prejudice and its effects, look for Native Son, a 1940 novel by Richard Wright. Telling the story of Bigger Thomas, a poor black boy raised in the Chicago slums, Wright describes how Bigger's fear of white society, and its fear of him, turns him into a criminal. In the Belly of the Beast offers an insider's account of prison life written by the controversial Jack Henry Abbott, a convict. Abbott was released after he published the book in 1991, at the urging of a group of writers including Norman Mailer. Shortly thereafter, he killed a man in a bar brawl and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Readers interested in French history should investigate Marie Henri Beyle Stendhal's detailed account of the battle of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma. Published in 1839, the main theme of this novel is the struggle of the individual against a conformist society. Charles Baudelaire's 1857 The Flowers of Evil offers a collection of poems centered on life in Paris. One of the major poetry collections of the century, it bridged the Romantic and Modernist movements. Six of the poems that were considered too erotic and decadent were banned in France until 1949. Baudelaire was Hugo's contemporary and often reviewed his fellow author's work.
(The entire section is 208 words.)
Les Miserables has been adapted for film, television, and stage numerous times. Among the better adaptations are a 1935 film starring Fredric March, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Rochelle Hudson, and John Beal. Directed by Richard Boleslawski, this adaptation is detailed and faithful to the novel, except for a changed ending. Considered a classic, the film received Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Picture. A version directed by Glenn Jordan was made for television in 1978, starring Richard Jordan, Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, Cyril Cusack, Flora Robson, Celia Johnson, and Claude Dauphin. An animated version of Les Miserables appeared in 1979, produced by Toei Animation Company. Les Miserables was again adapted for the screen in 1998. This version starred Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes, and was directed by Bill August.
There are many French film adaptations of the novel. A version released in 1957 stars Jean Gabin, Daniele Delorme, Bernard Blier, Bourvil, Gianni Esposito, and Serge Reggiani. Directed by Jean-Paul LeChanois, the film is in French with English subtitles. A 1994 film version of the novel transposed its setting to early twentieth-century France. Directed, produced, and adapted by Claude Lelouch, the movie, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Boujenah, Alessandrea Martines, and Annie Girador, received a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film.
(The entire section is 272 words.)
Recorded in 1988, Les Miserables is available from Dove Books on Tape in an abridged version read by Christopher Cazenove.
Les Miserables was adapted for the stage as a musical by Alain Boubhl and Claude-Michel Schonberg, with the lyrics composed by Herbert Kretzmer. In 1995, the tenth anniversary concert in Royal Albert Hall, London, was released as a movie by Columbia Tristar Home Video The musical is also available as a sound recording from Geffen produced in 1987. This version features the original Broadway cast.
Les Miserables was made into a film in 1935, starring Fredric March, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Rochelle Hudson, and John Beal. Directed by Richard Boleslawski, this adaptation is detailed and faithful to the novel, except for a changed ending. Considered a classic, the film received Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Picture.
There are many French film adaptations of the novel. A version released in 1957 stars Jean Gabin, Daniele Delorme, Bernard Blier, Bourvil, Gianni Esposito, and Serge Reggiani. Directed by Jean-Paul LeChanois, the film is in French with English subtitles.
A version directed by Glenn Jordan was made for television in 1978, starring Richard Jordan, Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, Cyril Cusack, Flora Robson, Celia Johnson, and Claude Dauphin.
An animated version of Les Miserables appeared in 1979, produced by Toei...
(The entire section is 254 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
Victor Hugo's other major works include the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831, and the poetry collection Contemplations, released in 1856, which he wrote at about the same time as Les Miserables. Some critics consider the latter, written after the drowning death of his daughter, his best poetry.
Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, first published in 1866, tells the story of Raskolnikov, a man who commits a brutal murder and then can escape neither his own conscience nor the detective who pursues him.
Published in 1940, Native Son, a novel by Richard Wright, is the story of Bigger Thomas, a poor black boy raised in the Chicago slums. Wright describes how Bigger's fear of white society, and its fear of him, turns him into a criminal.
In the Belly of the Beast is an insider's account of prison life written by the controversial Jack Henry Abbott, a convict. Abbott was released after he published the book in 1991, at the urging of a group of writers including Norman Mailer. Shortly thereafter, he killed a man in a bar brawl and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Marie Henri Beyle Stendhal offers a detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma, published in 1839. The main theme of this novel is the struggle of the individual against a conformist society.
Charles Baudelaire's 1857 The Flowers of Evil is a...
(The entire section is 276 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Brombert, Victor. The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. Points out that in Les Misérables the most important reference to hell is its embodiment in the sewers of Paris, through which Jean Valjean carries Marius as the final part of his quest—through death to resurrection.
Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. The most sophisticated study of Hugo’s fiction to date. Notes Hugo’s use of digressive patterns and impersonal, realistic narration. Draws on a wealth of French criticism.
Grant, Richard B. The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968. An exhaustive study of Hugo’s use of image, myth, and prophecy. Notes—among other images and uses of myth—the Christological references to Jean Valjean, who finds redemption in saving others.
Houston, John Porter. Victor Hugo. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Indispensable starting guide to the works—drama, poetry, and novels—and life of Victor Hugo.
Wellek, René. A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950. Vol. 2. The Romantic Age. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1955. Analysis of Hugo’s...
(The entire section is 216 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Victor Brombert, Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel, Harvard University Press, 1984.
Cairns, Trevor. The Old Regime and the Revolution. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 1980.
Chalfont, Lord, ed. Waterloo: Battle of Three Armies. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.
Davidson, Marshall B. The Horizon Concise History of France. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1971.
Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. Abridged with an introduction by James K. Robinson. New York: Fawcett Premier, 1961.
Matthew Josephson, Victor Hugo, A Realistic Biography of the Great Romantic, Doubleday, 1942.
Kelly, Linda. The Young Romantics. New York: Random House, 1976.
Lewis, Gynne. Life in Revolutionary France. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972.
Joanna Richardson, Victor Hugo, St. Martin's Press, 1976.
Thibaudet, Albert. French Literature from 1795 to Our Era. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1967.
For Further Study
Elliot Grant, The Career of Victor Hugo, Harvard University Press, 1945. A very basic and useful study of Hugo's main novels and poetry.
Richard B. Grant, The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narration of Victor Hugo, Duke University Press, 1968. Hugo described himself as a "prophet" among men, as...
(The entire section is 288 words.)